Walsh Cup Group Two: Westmeath v Antrim (Sunday, Kinnegad, 1.30pm)
DARREN Gleeson will test the depths of his squad this weekend as Antrim mix and match ahead of their Conor McGurk Cup quarter-final with Ulster University on Saturday (Jordanstown, 1.30pm), 24 hours before the Saffrons begin their Walsh Cup campaign against familiar foes Westmeath.
In the absence of the talismanic Neil McManus - who retired from inter-county duty at the end of last season - and the Dunloy quartet of Ryan Elliott, Keelan Molloy, Sean Elliott and Eoin O’Neill, as well as bustling forward Domhnall Nugent, it is no surprise that Gleeson will use this pre-season to run the rule over as much fresh blood as possible ahead of the start of the National League.
However, the date with the Lake County is likely to have been foremost in his mind during recent days, with the youngsters who got their chance in Tuesday night’s McGurk win over Tyrone expected to get another crack against UU.
“It was great to get out and get our first competitive game of the year, a nice mixture of a youthful U20 team with the spine of the seniors there,” said the Tipperary All-Ireland winner.
“For us, it’s about getting competitive games, to have a look at our younger players. It’s part of our preparation, mileage on the clock for boys, a hard-hitting, physical game here in Garvaghey tonight – that’s what you’re looking for ahead of the contests to come in the National League and the Championship.”
Established senior players Gerard Walsh, Damon McMullan, Conal Bohill, Niall McKenna and Conal Cunning all played the full game against the Red Hands, but Westmeath will provide a significant step up on Sunday.
Conor Johnston is unavailable for the time being, with St John’s team-mate Michael Bradley unlikely to feature until later in the year after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Rossa’s Aodhan O’Brien has returned to the fold having missed out last year as Antrim secured their Division One and Leinster Championship status – the latter courtesy of a last-day victory over Westmeath in Mullingar.
And Joe Fortune’s men got 2024 off to a sluggish start when losing by 22 points to an experimental Dublin side at Parnell Park on Thursday night.
They will be keen to put that right on Sunday, though victory would send Antrim into next weekend’s date with Micheal O’Donoghue’s Dubs on a high, with the lure of a Walsh Cup semi-final – and another competitive outing before the really serious stuff begins – up for grabs.